6 Things You Need To Know Right Now: The Optionality of Opting In

NYC SkylineSometimes, a bomb sounds like nothing more than the flip of a page. So it was with Judith Warner’s lengthy piece for The New York Times about former career women who took the professional off-ramp to stay at home with their children and now find themselves struggling to merge back in with the flow of traffic. To hear Warner re-cap it, women are more in a Catch-0 than a Catch-22; however they try to do it, somehow they will fail to have it all, much less do it all. In one sense, that conclusion is liberating. In another it is, of course, very, very depressing.

Interestingly, a significant response to the article comes from outside of the United States, particularly from the United Kingdom or its former colonies. Of course there are women in those countries – in all countries – who struggle with the same work-life dichotomy this debate always gets reduced to. But, as even those foreign commenters note, the issue has distinctly American undertones, given that the United States is the country telling women they can be everything while providing them support verging on nothing. Here are six things we should know about the debate, from the perspective of a few ponds over…or under.

1. Wales Looking to Embrace Work “Agility.” We call it flexibility, they call it agility, but it means the same thing: giving the employee some control over when he/she works, and where he/she works from. As the UK’s labor market seeks to regain solid ground, employers are looking to remain competitive, and “workforce agility” is one of the best ways they see how. A new report from the Agile Future Forum claims that flexible work arrangements can save businesses as much as 13% in workforce costs, not to mention bring them increased employee engagement and higher retention rates. KPMG piloted a “flexible futures” program, which allowed employees and partners to reduce their work hours on a temporary basis. 85% of the workforce signed up, and the company saved millions of dollars over the course of the recent recession.

2. Working Mothers Feel Discriminated Against. Clearly, agility is not taken rampant root, even in the UK. In a recent study of approximately 2,000 mothers in the UK who work outside the home, more than one in four reported feeling discriminated against when they were pregnant or after they returned from maternity leave. Half felt they weren’t taken as seriously, and two in five thought that younger, childless colleagues received more support and encouragement. Nonetheless, none of those mothers who felt discriminated against every complained about their treatment.

3. Marie Claire’s Advice: Don’t Talk About The Baby. The UK edition of Marie Claire either arrived too late to the scene or is contributing to the unfriendly landscape. In an article with five tips about how to navigate the return to work, the glossy suggests that new mothers refrain from talking about their baby….at all. Discussing the option of flexible working is cited as a “do,” but apparently a reason other than baby should be invented. Otherwise, the magazine warns, the mother might not appear “100 per cent committed to [the] job.”

4. PayPal’s Head of Irish Operations Doesn’t Read Marie Claire. Louise Phelan, head of PayPal’s Irish operations, says that women who choose to leave the work force should receive support when they later choose to return. She claims to meet with returning mothers when they come back to the office, and says she keeps in touch with them when they are on maternity leaves. Seemingly small measures of outreach, but perhaps they do make a difference to the women under her direction. On something of a materialistic note, she urged employers to be “advocates” for women so that those women are “as successful as they can be.”

5. But Watch Out for The Pink Ghetto. Not so fast, says Insead, the “business school for the world.” Some analysts believe that the general lack of support for working mothers in the United States has actually helped to push more women to the top of corporate environments traditionally dominated by men. In a surprise to no one, Marissa Meyer – she of the no-maternity-leave-but-nursery-next-to-executive-office – was cited as the best example of this phenomenon. In countries or industries especially supportive of women who have a career and a family, Insead warns that the women fall into the trap of the “pink ghetto”: they have the flexibility and the reduced travel, but they also lack the senior position and high pay and status.

6. No Wonder Men Don’t Take Paternity Leave. With the stigma that remains attached to working mothers, even in countries friendlier to the practice than the United States, is it any wonder new fathers are shying away from taking paternity leave? Such is the case in New Zealand and Australia, where less than 1% of parental leave is attributed to new fathers. The same study notes that “flexi-working women” are the most productive employees, and that Australia is wasting billions of education dollars as women leave the workforce to stay at home with their children. And just to make your stomach churn in new ways: much of Europe offers nearly a year of paid maternity leave. The UK offers 41 weeks, and Australia now offers 18, with New Zealand trailing at 14.


Don’t forget to check back next week for the “6 Things” you’ll need to know!

Featured image via wikimedia.

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